Urban history is one of the foundational fields within African American studies today. Yet, until the mid-20th century, studies of African American life focused primarily on the lives of black people within southern agriculture, initially as enslaved people and later as victims of the postbellum sharecropping system. Beginning gradually during the early 1900s with pioneering sociological, anthropological, and descriptive historical accounts of urban race relations, research on African American urban history as a field of study rapidly expanded during the mid- to late 20th century. Early post–World War II studies incorporated previous emphases on race relations into new ghetto formation studies, on the one hand, and proletarian or class formation studies, on the other. By the turn of the 21st century, however, scholars gave increasing attention to black women and the impact of gender relations on African American urban life. The bulk of this scholarship focused on the industrial era, but the preindustrial and emerging postindustrial black experience also gained increasing attention. Whereas the earliest wave of post–World War II studies emphasized the powerlessness of black people under the impact of slavery and Jim Crow, current research uncovers the myriad ways that black people themselves shaped the economics, culture, and politics of the city and nation.
A plethora of studies provide insight into the larger socioeconomic, demographic, cultural, and political context—local, national, and global—within which the black urban experience unfolded. Emphasizing the integration of African Americans into the larger stream of US history from the arrival of the first Europeans on North American soil through recent times, Franklin and Higginbotham 2011 is a useful starting point for understanding the black urban experience within the broader sweep of US and African American history in North America. First published in 1947, under the subtitle, A History of Negro Americans, Franklin’s study established the groundwork for subsequent surveys of African American history. By the turn of the 21st century, a variety of new syntheses emerged to address certain gaps in Franklin’s “slavery to freedom” narrative. Meier and Rudwick 1976; Hine and Thompson 1998; Painter 2006; and Holt 2010, respectively, are surveys that emphasize shifting ideologies and strategies for empowerment, diverse and changing meanings of freedom itself, artistic and visual representations of the black past, and narratives that underscore the overlap in experiences from one generation to the next. At the same time, supplementing the expansion of works of general synthesis, specialized overviews—Berlin 2010, Curry 1981, Hine and Thompson 1998, Jones 1985, and Taylor 1998—cover such diverse topics as migration, work, and community formation; women and gender relations; and the black American West. For all time periods, the website Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed offers a comprehensive electronic resource for scholars, teachers, and students of diverse aspects of the black experience on a global scale.
Berlin, Ira. The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations. New York: Viking, 2010.
Berlin offers a sweeping history of African American population movements within the context of changing global capitalist development, accents the impact of three great migrations and the gradual emergence of a fourth, and calls for a narrative of African American history that transcends the existing slavery to freedom story.
Cañizares-Esguerra, Jorge, Matt D. Childs, and James Sidbury, eds. The Black Urban Atlantic in the Age of the Slave Trade. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.
The authors establish a transnational framework for understanding the urbanization of African people during the Atlantic slave trade. They advance the notion of “black capitals of the Atlantic” as a lens for understanding the enslavement of black people in the seaports of West Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and North America.
Curry, Leonard P. The Free Black in Urban America, 1800–1850: The Shadow of the Dream. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
A quantitative social history of free people of color in fifteen cities in the North and the South; concludes that free blacks embraced the 19th-century version of the “American Dream,” including achieving a status of freedom, property ownership, and independent institutions, but stiff racial barriers stymied their quest for equal rights.
Franklin, John Hope, and Evelyn Higginbotham. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. 9th ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 2011.
Building upon pioneering syntheses by historians George Washington Williams’s History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880 (New York: G. P. Putnam’s, 1882) and Benjamin Brawley’s A Social History of the American Negro (New York: Macmillan, 1921), the authors emphasize the role of African people in every facet of the nation’s socioeconomic, political, intellectual, and cultural development.
Hine, Darlene Clark, and Kathleen Thompson. A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America. New York: Broadway Books, 1998.
The authors explore the lives of black women from the colonial era through the 20th century; emphasizes the role of black women as community-builders; locates the community-building ethos of African American women in the antebellum “slave quarters where they taught their children—and especially their daughters,” the virtues of community-building (pp. 4–5).
Holt, Thomas C. Children of Fire: A History of African Americans. New York: Hill and Wang, 2010.
An innovative synthesis of the black experience from the slave trade to recent times; breaks ranks with the usual slavery to freedom chronology; offers a narrative of “overlapping generational experiences” of African people.
Jones, Jacqueline. Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present. New York: Basic Books, 1985.
Jones examines black women’s work, family, and community life from the antebellum era through the late 20th century and emphasizes how working class women balanced an ongoing labor of love in their “own homes and communities” (p. 3) with the exploitive demands of enslaved and free wage labor.
Meier, August, and Elliott Rudwick. From Plantation to Ghetto. 3d ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 1976.
Aimed to complement the slavery to freedom narrative by offering “an analytical, interpretive, and interdisciplinary rather than a narrative account”; emphasized intraracial ideologies, protest movements, and institutional developments. Originally published in 1966.
Painter, Nell Irvin. Creating Black Americans: African American History and its Meanings, 1619 to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Advances a narrative of the black experience that underscores both the changing “material conditions” of African people and the shifting meanings attached to those conditions by writers, musicians, visual artists, and historical commemorations; emphasizes “the creation of black Americans by black Americans” (p. xiii).
Taylor, Qintard, ed. Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed.
A comprehensive electronic source for research on people of African descent in global perspective; provides pertinent primary and secondary sources on a broad range of topics, themes, individuals, and time periods; offers bibliographies and links to museums, libraries, historical landmarks, and various civic, political, and community institutions.
Taylor, Quintard. In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528–1990. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.
Emphasizes the urban dimensions of black life in the American West; challenges popular stereotypes about blacks and the open range; shows how large numbers of Asian Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans created “a striking ambiguity” in race relations in the West compared to the North and the South.
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